by Maureen Foertsch McKinney
After 22 years as the state’s top advocate for children, Jerry Stermer became the chief administrator in Illinois government. So instead of advocating for the expansion of child care, he was explaining why such services were in danger of being cut. As his son Dan tells it, “You’re fighting against the man, and then you get a job where you are the man, and it’s like, wait, what are you going to do?”
Well, you can’t fight against the man — not when, as Gov. Pat Quinn’s chief of staff, you’ve become the voice for the man.
Stermer took the job at 65, the age where he had been planning to step away from the presidency of Voices for Illinois Children, telling the board of directors that he would like to scale back his involvement and prepare a successor. He had taught a class on social policy at Northwestern University on an adjunct basis since 2002 and thought he might like to do more teaching. “That was the plan, and then everything got turned upside down,” Nancy, his wife of nearly 30 years, says. “He was going to ratchet down his pace a little bit, and instead, he increased it a hundredfold.”
The Evanston resident gave up teaching and Voices, along with his roles on various boards, including Voices for America’s Children.
He first met Quinn in the early ’70s through his youngest sister, Mary Joan Park, who was the sixth-grade teacher of Quinn’s youngest brother. When they met, Stermer and Quinn were both campaigning for former Gov. Dan Walker. Stermer actually began his career in state government serving in the Department of Children and Family Services under Walker.
This year, in his return to state government, he spent much of the spring and summer explaining Illinois’ budget woes, telling the tale of that tsunami of red ink. “We have the most unbelievable fiscal crisis our community has ever faced, and we’re struggling at every angle of what we’re doing here. But we can keep some principles ahead of us,” says Stermer.
“What Gov. Quinn wanted to do was to fashion an approach to government that kept a principle, children first, as front and center as possible. He felt that asking me to serve as chief of staff would serve as a daily, even hourly, reminder that no matter what we do, we’re not going to forget that children are first and most important.”
Serving as a symbol is not the usual role for a chief of staff, but Stermer is not the usual chief of staff.
“He really doesn’t meet the stereotype ... sort of brash, extroverted, cutthroat, hard-nosed, but he’s not someone you should ever underestimate,” says John Casey, his friend and former boss at the Legislative Advisory Committee on Public Aid, where Stermer worked from 1979-85 and succeeded Casey as executive director.
Three chiefs of staff for the previous two governors, Scott Fawell, Lon Monk and John Harris, have been imprisoned or indicted on political corruption charges. Fawell recently was released from prison. Monk is scheduled to plead October 7, and Harris pleaded guilty in July to one count of wire fraud.
Quinn “has principles, and I certainly share those principles,” Stermer says. “And it was those principles that persuaded me to join him. We’ve got to restore integrity to government. We can’t get to doing what we need to do in programming if we don’t have integrity in the government.”
Casey says of Stermer: “He’s as honest and decent a human being as anyone I’ve ever known and worked with. Bar none. I give great credit to Gov. Quinn for having the wisdom to hire Jerry as his number one aide, particularly in light of the fact the last couple chiefs of staff have been indicted.”
Jerry Stermer was born in Minnesota, the second of Mary and Edward Stermer’s eight children. The family moved to west suburban Elmhurst when he was 10. His parents, a homemaker and a salesman, were devout Catholics with a strong interest in politics and current events. Mary Stermer walked door to door campaigning for Hubert Humphrey for mayor of Minneapolis and organized a march in Chicago after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That peeved the bishop of the Joliet Diocese, who didn’t like that she was being ecumenical.
His mother died in the fall of 2007 at the age of 88. “But during that last year, when she was much in decline, she was very interested in Barack Obama. She knew that I knew him and had worked with him when he was a member of the Illinois legislature. The last conversation we had was about how he was doing in the debates, in particular a debate at Dartmouth. She said he could be more firm on certain points and could hold his head straighter. My mother was totally interested in politics her entire life. She was committed, committed, committed to social justice.”
He shares many of his mother’s interests.
Stermer says: “I am a man of great faith, a great believer. I don’t have to go to organized activities every week to stay strong in my faith.” He had planned early in life to be a priest, attending high school and college in programs related to the Divine Word Seminary. He was in the seminary until he was in his mid-20s, when he joined the Peace Corps.
“I thought the progress in the Catholic Church was a little slow. We were dragging our feet on reforms, and I also felt — this is what tipped it over for me — that suddenly, without having paid any dues, I was going to have a prominent role in some community. I was going to school, going to college, and I was going to be ordained, and I was going to be a priest someplace where I hadn’t paid any dues whatsoever, hadn’t worked my way up the ranks, and all of a sudden I was going to be a person of distinction, you know, have certain influence in the community that I didn’t earn. It just seemed wrong to me. To me, it was better that you pay your dues, that you serve in the ranks. If you’re later selected to have a different assignment, a more challenging assignment, fine. So I thought serving in the Peace Corps would be a much better way to pay my dues and then to see how I could contribute.”
He volunteered from 1968-70 in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, where he helped farmers in a quasi-government economic development program.
After the Peace Corps, he went to the University of Pittsburgh’s graduate school for public and international affairs. He was thinking about serving in an international program such as the U.S. Agency for International Development. A professor at Pitt queried his students about why books, studies and journals supposedly differentiated the United States from developing countries when this nation also struggles with issues such as child poverty and failing schools.
Stermer, who later received a master’s degree in public administration and political science from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says he and several classmates realized there was work to do at home: “I said, ‘I’m going to Chicago.’”
Fast forward nearly 40 years. The crisis occupying Stermer’s time in his new $150,000-a-year job is the state budget, which earlier this year was projected to have an $11.6 billion deficit.
The budget debate in the General Assembly produced an underfunded spending plan that Quinn vetoed. Deliberations dragged on until mid-July, when a $26.1 billion budget was finally adopted. Although the most severe cuts that were initially proposed were staved off because of a plan to borrow $3.4 billion over five years, lawmakers still left it up to Quinn to reduce spending by $1 billion. Announced layoffs of 2,600 employees sparked a lawsuit by Council 31 of the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, the state’s largest public employee union. Cuts hit education, corrections, human services, health care and other areas. Causes close to Stermer’s heart were not spared.
“Personally, I think, it’s just heart-wrenching for him,’’ says Nancy Stermer. “He knows these programs backwards and forwards and how their absence affects lives. It represents a danger to the most vulnerable people. So yeah, that has been very, very difficult for him.”
Stermer downplays the difficulty and points out how much more severe the cuts might have been. “For every choice, there were many powerful consequences, and the initial partial budget that Pat Quinn vetoed, we would have funded many, many social programs at 50 percent of the previous year.”
The enacted budget allocates $3.93 billion to human services, while the original spending plan was $2.53 billion.
He posed a question to the legislative leaders at Quinn’s request. How many caseloads did Illinois have of people who were receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1995, before welfare reform passed? Before welfare reform was adopted, the state had a caseload of 238,112 families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Now, the Temporary Aid to Needy Families caseload is about 29,000 — mostly women and children.
Illinois, Stermer notes, responded to the welfare reform movement that encouraged welfare recipients to work by increasing child care subsidies, which now cost $650 million.
“The partial budget (the version Quinn vetoed) would have put tens of thousands, probably more than 100,000 people, out of work. ... Gov. Quinn said that’s just totally unacceptable, not in the worst fiscal crisis, not in a time of recession, not when we are pushing at that time 10 percent unemployment. We’ve got to keep people working. We brought the legislature back, and we did better. We maintained child care subsidies at the same level as last year.’’
That’s an example of how Stermer’s experience at Voices served as a reminder of a Quinn commitment to children. When Voices for Illinois Children was founded in 1987 (with Stermer as its original president), the advocacy group took on a push for preschool for all of Illinois’ children, one of 87 recommendations developed by a study group. In the 2010 state budget, early childhood education is funded at $85 million, just 90 percent of last year’s level.
“How could I stay away when they invited me to work on these issues, things I believed in passionately?’’ Stermer — whose own adult children are 27 and 24, a massage therapist and a theater artist, respectively — says of Voices.
He cites the preschool push as one of Voices’ victories, along with an effect of a Blagojevich era initiative: Illinois leads the nation in expansion of health coverage for children of the otherwise uninsured.
Judging how effective a chief of staff Stermer was during the budget process depends on whom you talk to.
“He’s done a very good job,” says Senate President John Cullerton, a fellow Democrat. “We both had a little learning curve on the budget, both myself and Jerry, because we’re both new to the job. Both of us came at about the same time. I think we both together tried to learn and appreciate how the budget works, so that by the end of the fiscal year, we were able to maybe not be the most knowledgeable but certainly be knowledgeable enough to know what we were trying to accomplish — to make sure we were talking apples to apples.”
Says Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, “One, he’s versed in one area of the budget but not necessarily in some of the others, so he’s had a steep learning curve, which I don’t think has been terrifically helpful because we’re in a crisis. The other thing that I think has been a challenge for him more than for someone who has a background in government is I believe he thought he would get everyone to the table and everyone would be interested in problem-solving because we have a big problem. And I think it’s been a bit of a rude awakening for him that not everybody wants to solve the problem and not everyone is coming at this as to what is the best way to do it, that there were other agendas having to do with power and politics that frankly sometimes supersede solving the problem.”
She adds: “Dealmaking. That probably wasn’t in his repertoire” of political skills.
“I think he’s beginning to develop them a little at the same time, unfortunately, that he was having to learn the job and what was required of him at the same time the crisis was going on. The product that we ended up passing I don’t think is a good one for the state of Illinois. The end result is not a good one. As I said many times, the way human services were targeted for more cuts than the rest of the budget was wrong, and I honestly think that was difficult for Jerry because he truly cares about that area of government.”
Stermer takes issue with the notion that he’s new to the legislative process, saying, “I’ve worked in and around state government since 1973.”
He also disagrees with Radogno’s take on budget cuts to human services. “The fact is, the reductions were spread painfully across a variety of areas including education, public safety, human services and health care.”
Cullerton says he believes that Stermer’s personality aids in the negotiation process. “He’s very well-suited because he’s low-key, and he doesn’t lose his temper, at least in front of me he never did. He’s very easy-going. He seems to have his ego in check and is very dedicated to the governor and seems to have very good people skills.“
A former coworker describes Stermer, who drives a 1996 Honda Civic, as a down-to-earth consensus builder whom he often seeks out for advice.
“What you see is what you get with Jerry. He’s a knowledgeable, a smart guy but also warm, so you could underestimate the fact that he’s also pragmatic and can be tough when he needs to be,” says John Bouman, president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and a former lawyer at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, where Stermer worked from 1985-87.
Stermer’s next major challenge could require that tougher persona, as he tries to advance the governor’s renewed push for an income tax hike from 3 percent to 4.5 percent.
“What we hear all across the state is ... that people are recognizing how important it is to provide the programming and services that make sense for our communities, that we’ve long neglected the integrity of those beliefs and principles,” Stermer says. “I think people feel that if we’re using our heads and we’re vigorous custodians of the scarce resources that we have, then people are willing to pay. I think people recognize Gov. Quinn’s honesty, integrity and his courage and his commitment, and I think people recognize those realities. And those characteristics that make up who he is far overshadow the particular frustrations that all of us have with our taxes.’’
So says the voice for the man.
Illinois Issues, October 2009